Understanding Lameness in Feedlot Cattle

February 24, 2020

Howard M. Blalock, Ph.D.

Lameness is a common problem across the cattle industry that can have significant effects on animal productivity.  Historically, laminitis and foot rot have been the most common source of lameness in feedlot cattle but the prevalence of digital dermatitis has risen significantly over the past several years.  It is important to correctly distinguish between the cause as the management plan used to combat each may distinctly differ.

Laminitis:  This disease is not typically foot specific and significant swelling is not common.  Depending on the severity, laminitis can lead to ulcers and bleeding from the sole of hoof and be very painful.  Heavy breathing, sweating, and/or reluctance to stand or walk may also be observed.  Animals may also stand with their feet extended forward.

The onset of laminitis is diet related.  Either the ration is not properly balanced, bunk management is poor, cattle are not properly transitioned to higher concentrate diets, poor ration mix, and/or an error in the ration being fed.  In the case of laminitis, prevention is the cure.

Foot Rot:  This disease is characterized by rapid, symmetrical swelling at the upper limit of the hoof, typically accompanied by elevated temperature.  The skin between the toes become necrotic and produces a particularly foul smell.  This condition produces considerable pain and lameness in affected animals.  It is most prevalent when lots and pens are wet and/or muddy.  It is caused by a bacterial infection of tissue between the toes.  The invading organism(s), which are common in feedlots, enter the skin through abrasions caused by rough surfaces.

Prevention measures that should be taken include reducing abrasive surfaces and minimizing persistently wet areas and the use of footbaths.  Supplementing organic iodine (within FDA guidelines) and zinc can also be effective in preventing and, in some cases, treating cases of foot rot.  Other minerals, such as copper, selenium, and manganese, may also aid in preventing foot rot by supporting immune function and tissue maintenance and repair.  If feasible, mild cases of foot rot can be treated by thoroughly cleaning and applying a 5% copper sulfate solution to the affected area.  The infection typically responds well to labeled use of antibiotics and sulfa drugs.  In the event that swelling persists beyond a day or two post-treatment, a veterinarian should be consulted to ensure that 1) the diagnosis was correct and 2) that the infection has not progressed to a deeper infection of the foot.

Digital Dermatitis:  Commonly referred to as “hairy heel wart”, is caused by a bacterial infection.  It has been common in the dairy industry for many years.  In recent years, it has become a growing concern for the feedlot industry as it is highly contagious and spreads easily.  It is characterized by heel lesions, commonly very red and sore.  Many of the lesions associated with digital dermatitis are easily confused with foot rot.  One major difference common in cases of digital dermatitis is that cattle will typically stand placing weight only on the toe of the affected foot while cattle with foot rot typically try to avoid placing any weight on the affected foot.  Another major difference is that cattle with digital dermatitis typically respond poorly to treatment (footbaths and antibiotics).  If caught early, cattle do respond more readily but at advanced stages, it is much harder to manage.

Prevention/management measures are very similar to that of foot rot.  The use of footbaths has been shown to be effective in early stages along with reducing abrasive surfaces, minimizing persistently wet areas and general pen maintenance.  The use of organic trace minerals such as iodine, zinc, and copper should also be considered as part of an effective management program.  Further research is needed concerning treatment methods of digital dermatitis.  Today, recommendations focus on the use of foot baths, pen management, nutrition and antibiotics as directed by a Veterinarian.

Regardless of the cause, cattle lameness is an important consideration this time of year.  The effects can be substantial on cattle performance, but they do not have to be debilitating.  In a review of data compiled over 7 years at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center feedlot in Clay Center, NE, it was reported that a single incidence of foot rot reduced gains by 2.4% over the entire feeding period, however, cattle treated only once during the starting or growing period exhibited compensatory gain and performed similarly to non-treated cattle at slaughter (Tibbets et al., 2006).  A bout of cattle lameness early in the feeding period can be overcome with the right steps to limit future incidence.  QLF liquid supplements are an ideal carrier of organic trace minerals and help to improve overall ration consistency, making them a valuable tool in combating the incidence of cattle lameness.  Contact your local QLF Sales Manager to determine if you are doing all you can through management and nutrition to combat cattle lameness in your yard.

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